Female Director Spotlight: Ida Lupino, a Hollywood Trailblazer

From the very beginning, Ida Lupino was destined to become an influential figure in the entertainment industry. Coming from the Lupino theatrical family, she wrote her first play at age seven and by ten she had memorized all the female leading roles in Shakespeare’s plays. That acting bug resulted in her 105 acting credits in films like High Sierra (1941), and appearances in television shows like Bonanza. But in an industry where good roles for women were hard to get, and with up and coming starlets vying for those roles, Lupino decided to leave Warner Brothers and create her own production company, The Filmakers [sic], with her husband, Collier Young. It was, primarily, an outlet for Lupino to direct, write, and produce her own low-budget and issue-oriented films. Their production company produced 12 feature films, six of which Lupino directed, five she wrote or co-wrote, and two she co-produced. It was during this time that Lupino became the first woman to direct a film noir: The Hitch-Hiker (1953). She later turned to television where she directed episodes for shows like The Twilight Zone, Gilligan’s Island, and Bewitched.

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The films that Lupino co-wrote and directed dealt with themes that the major studios were unwilling or too apprehensive to touch, such as sexual assault, bigamy, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The films had a social significance, but were also entertaining, based on true stories or things we ourselves have experienced or have seen depicted in other media. Lupino’s intent in creating films rooted in reality is best explained in this quote from 1949:

People are tired of having the wool pulled over their eyes. They pay out good money for their theatre tickets and they want something in return. They want realism. And you can’t be realistic with the same glamorous muggs on the screen all the time.

The second woman to be admitted into the Director’s Guild (behind Dorothy Arzner), and hailed as a pioneer for women filmmakers, Lupino joked that if she had been the “poor man’s Bette Davis” as an actress, she had become the “poor man’s Don Siegel” as a director. In this month’s Female Director Spotlight, we discuss all eight of her directorial works.

NOT WANTED (1949)

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Sally Forrest in ‘Not Wanted’ (1949)

Lupino was thrown in the director’s chair for the first time on Not Wanted when director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack while shooting. During an era when the word “pregnancy” wasn’t allowed to be uttered on television, the subject of the film was especially progressive as it discussed unwed motherhood. It’s a romantic tragedy with a young girl falling in love, getting pregnant, not wanting the baby, and later regretting her decision of giving it away. As stated, Lupino co-directed the film so it’s impossible to know which scenes were directed by her, but there are several first-person point of view shots which she used frequently to highlight a character’s condition; for example, the camera fading in and out as our young protagonist, Sally, gives birth. The effective use of score illustrates Sally’s emotions by including hints of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in its music as she is surrounded by children playing on the street. The film, as you can imagine, received a lot of publicity, and Lupino was invited to discuss the film with Eleanor Roosevelt on a radio show.

NOT WANTED was also co-written and co-produced by Lupino.

NEVER FEAR (1949)

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Sally Forrest and Keefe Brasselle in ‘Never Fear’ (1949)

Never Fear was Lupino’s first full-length directorial effort that, unfortunately, reflects the age of classic film as it pertains to visual quality. No restoration has been done so we’re stuck with an SD quality reel. However, it doesn’t take away from its value. The film follows Carol, a young dancer with a promising career who is struck and crippled by polio. Again, Lupino used her signature first person, fade in fade out, style to signify the moment that Carol is feeling the effects of her illness, and the audience too feels it. Never Fear, at times melodramatic, follows Carol on her journey to overcome the disease. This is the weakest of Lupino’s scripts as the film is tonally jarred by the unsympathetic male lead who doesn’t show an ounce of understanding for Carol’s condition, but somehow still remains her number one motivation to walk again. However, this doesn’t deter from the film’s importance, as it was made at the height of the 1949 polio epidemic and was shot at a rehabilitation center with actors who were real rehab patients. Lupino put something of herself in the script as she too suffered from polio 15 years earlier. She suffered the same symptoms and fears which were perfectly captured on screen.

NEVER FEAR was also co-written and co-produced by Lupino.

OUTRAGE (1950)

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Mala Powers in ‘Outrage’ (1950)

“Is this why you raise a daughter? Is this what you love and sacrifice for? What kind of times are these that such things can happen?”

This is the aching question posed by a father whose daughter has just been raped, a topic that makes this film the most impactful of Lupino’s work. In Outrage, she skillfully circles around the Hays Code to tell a story that had only been done once before in Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda. This is an anxiety-fueled film, as the whistling and catcalls are heard, and as the close-up and wide shot cinematography capture our young protagonist, Ann, running in an attempt to save her youth. This chase sequence is almost unbearable to watch, but shows Lupino’s technical progression since her first time behind the camera. The doubts and victim blaming that, unfortunately, still linger in rape culture are absent here. Not one character questions what Ann says. Not one character makes the assumption that it must have somehow been her fault because of what she was wearing. The unbearable struggle to cope with her experience, the unrelenting gossip, and the untrustworthiness of the men around her, are depicted in such a raw way. Despite not being the easiest of watches, Lupino provides something bold and ahead of its time.

OUTRAGE was also co-written by Lupino.

HARD, FAST AND BEAUTIFUL (1951)

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Sally Forrest, Robert Clarke and Claire Trevor in ‘Hard, Fast and Beautiful’ (1951)

Loosely based on the 1930 novel American Girl by sports fiction author John R. Tunis, Hard, Fast and Beautiful is an ode to women in sport–the covert professionalization of amateur sports being another topic the studios avoided. It’s the closest thing Lupino came to traditional melodrama, as the story follows the relationship between a young tennis player and her domineering mother, whose relentless drive for her daughter’s success ultimately leaves her abandoned at the tennis court. It’s filmed, under Lupino’s documentarian eye, with finesse and an elegant cinematographic style as it follows Florence on the court, win after win. The film also explores the damage caused to families by fame, and the obstacles women face in the quest to be seen equally on the sports stage.

ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951)

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Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan in ‘On Dangerous Ground’ (1951)

Directing the film for several days when director Nicholas Ray fell ill, On Dangerous Ground is Lupino’s first outing as director away from her production company, and first film she both (co) directed and starred in. This film noir follows a big-city cop who is reassigned to the country in a manhunt for a suspected murderer. During the chase, he meets Lupino’s blind character, Mary. While not producing the most compelling of narratives, On Dangerous Ground manages to bring something new to the film noir genre. Certain scenes were filmed using a hand-held camera to produce sequences with a live-action feel to them, something rarely seen in film at the time. Additionally, there’s an amazing first-person point of view chase scene. These techniques are noticeably absent in Ray’s other works, and it’s clear from photographs that Ray was present for Lupino’s scenes, so it’s no stretch to assume that perhaps these methods were reflective of her genius. On Dangerous Ground also produces the most compelling film noir score thanks to Bernard Herrmann. Normally, all scores of the genre sound the same; overexaggerated and played at the most unnecessary moments. Herrmann’s score is subtle throughout, but reaching its climax as the film does, and delivering forcefully tantalizing opening credits.

THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

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Ida Lupino directing Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy on the set of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’ (1953)

The Hitch-Hiker, as the title sequence indicates, is a straightforward story: “This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car.” It was inspired by the true story of Billy Cook who, in 1950, murdered six people, took a Deputy Sheriff hostage, and ordered him to drive to the desert. Cook was caught and received the death penalty. Lupino integrated parts of Cook’s story into the film by interviewing two men that he had held hostage previously. The first noir directed by a woman is a bare-bones narrative, which leaves many unanswered questions, but provides tremendous tension as two men are confined to their vehicle and held at gunpoint by a psychopathic killer. Using a singular space to tell the bulk of a story isn’t unfamiliar to film, and it’s used no less effectively here. The car’s claustrophobia is contrasted by the desert wasteland traversed by the male leads and documented beautifully by the film’s cinematography. The female protagonists and social inquiry may be gone, but it stands as a purely cinematic feature.

THE HITCH-HIKER was also co-written by Lupino.

THE BIGAMIST (1953)

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Joan Fontaine, producer Collier Young, and Ida Lupino on the set of ‘The Bigamist’ (1953)

Shutting its doors in 1955, The Bigamist would be the last film Lupino directed for The Filmakers, and marked the first time a woman directed herself in a motion picture. Returning back to controversial subject matter and strong female characters, the film follows two women who represent the different roles of 1950s society: the career woman and the homemaker. The film’s male protagonist, Harry, is married to Eve who, unable to have children, devotes her time to her career. While on his frequent business trips, Harry spends time with “the other woman,” Lupino’s character, Phyllis, with whom he has a child. Marsha Orgeron, in her book Hollywood Ambitions, describes these characters as “struggling to figure out their place in environments that mirror the social constraints that Lupino faced.” At a time when Hollywood was under the critical eye of the production code, Lupino manages to create an ambitious film that bends normality. Under the code, sexual relations outside of marriage were to be portrayed negatively, and neither the crime (bigamy) nor the criminal could elicit sympathy from the audience. Lupino manages to break all these rules. The film’s gender politics may not have aged well, but it makes for good entertainment.

THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966)

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Hayley Mills, June Harding, and Rosalind Russell in ‘The Trouble with Angels’ (1966)

More than a decade since Lupino directed a theatrical feature, she makes her return (in colour) with The Trouble with Angels. The film is based on the novel, Life with Mother Superior by Jane Trahey, about her high school years at a Catholic school in Illinois in the 1930s. The film is rooted in Lupino’s signature exploration of the feminine, but this time, it’s a coming of age story. Her first venture into the comedic genre follows a young girl’s adventures in a Catholic boarding school under the watchful eye of a strict mother superior. A topic cinephiles are all familiar with, but while most nun stories opt for some sort of rebellion or escape, Lupino veers towards an ending that is surely unconventional in the eyes of modern audiences.

Ida Lupino was a movie star who found greater success behind the camera, and whose pioneering direction would become the precursor to independent filmmaking.

 

1 thought on “Female Director Spotlight: Ida Lupino, a Hollywood Trailblazer”

  1. I’ve only seen The Bigamist and know I want to see the rest of Lupino’s films. Sara, you always write with such a genuine passion for your subject and I look forward to what you’ve got next!

    Like

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